- Ukrainian troops will withdraw from Severodonetsk after weeks of fighting.
- The city is seen as a central point. Ukraine’s withdrawal is seen as boosting Russia’s goal to take eastern Ukraine.
- Russia has focused on taking the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops will withdraw from Severodonetsk after weeks of fierce fighting for the main city, a senior Ukrainian official said Friday, as a key boost to Russia’s goal to take part of eastern Ukraine.
The announcement came shortly after the European Union granted Ukraine candidate status as a sign of support for the former Soviet republic, although there is still a long way to go to membership.
Russia has focused its offensive on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine after being evicted from the capital Kiev and other areas following the February invasion. The armed forces have made gradual progress despite fierce resistance and heavy casualties.
“Despite the increasing loss of personnel and equipment, the Russians continue to outnumber the (Ukrainian) armed forces in number of artillery,” Ukraine’s defense ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told reporters on Friday.
“This allows them to achieve some tactical success,” added Motuzyanyk.
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The strategically important industrial center of Severodonetsk has been the scene of weeks of street fighting as the underprivileged Ukrainians doggedly defended themselves.
But Sergiy Gaiday, the governor of the Lugansk region, which also includes Severodonetsk, said Ukrainian forces in the city had been ordered to withdraw.
“Staying in positions that have been relentlessly shelled for months just doesn’t make sense,” he told Telegram, adding that 90 percent of the city was damaged.
The Ukrainians had already been driven back from much of the city, leaving them with only the industrial areas.
“The Ukrainian army is still in Severodonetsk, it will be some time before they retire,” the head of the city’s military administration, Roman Vlasenko, told Radio Svoboda – the Prague-based Russian-language wing of the US funded Radio Free Europe.
Conquering Severodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk would give the Russians control of Lugansk and allow them to penetrate further into the wider Donbas.
Lysychansk under attack
Gaiday said the Russians are now advancing towards Lysychansk, which is being increasingly bombarded by Russia.
The situation for those who remain in the city is bleak.
Liliya Nesterenko said her house had no gas, water or electricity and that she and her mother were cooking on a campfire. She was cycling down the street and had come out to feed a friend’s pets.
But the 39-year-old was optimistic about the city’s defense: “I believe in our Ukrainian army, it should be able to handle it.”
Andrei Marochko, a spokesman for the Moscow-backed army of Lugansk, said on Telegram on Friday that all villages in the neighboring areas of Zolote and Hirske are now under the control of Russian or pro-Russian forces.
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A video on Marochko’s Telegram channel shows a man in military clothing replacing the Ukrainian flag with Zolote’s coat of arms with a red hammer and sickle flag.
Russia’s defense ministry said on Friday that up to 2,000 people were “completely blocked” near Zolote and Hirske, and about half of Zolote was under Russian control.
Missiles hit university
Russia has also stepped up its offensive in the northern city of Kharkov in recent days.
An AFP team on the ground heard strong explosions in the city center last night and saw in the morning that the Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute had been hit by rockets, breaking windows and partially collapsing the roof.
According to an unidentified military official at the scene, “the Russians thought there might be something military in it, but there wasn’t.”
In the southern Kherson region, a Moscow-appointed official was killed by an explosive device placed in his car, Russian news agencies reported.
Kherson’s Moscow-appointed deputy head Kirill Stremousov said the regional head of the Family, Youth and Sports Department had died “as a result of a terrorist act”.
It was the first confirmed death of a pro-Russian official in a series of attacks on pro-Kremlin officials in Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine.
As Ukraine calls for accelerated arms deliveries, the United States announced it would send an additional $450 million in new weapons, including HIMARS missile systems, which can launch multiple missiles at greater distances.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Twitter that Ukraine was “grateful” to US President Joe Biden for the decision.
“This support… is now more important than ever,” he said.
Zelensky appeared at Britain’s famous Glastonbury music festival on Friday and urged revelers via video link to “spread the truth about the Russian war” and help Ukrainian refugees.
‘Future equal EU partner’
At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, EU leaders granted candidate country status to Ukraine and Moldova.
Zelensky praised the news as “a unique and historic moment”.
“It is recognized today that Ukraine is not a bridge, no pillow between the West and Russia, no buffer between Europe and Asia, no sphere of influence,” Zelensky said in a video address to Ukrainians on Friday.
“Ukraine is a future equal partner for at least 27 EU countries,” he added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed Ukraine’s new EU candidacy status as a “domestic European matter”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vehemently opposed what Moscow sees as attempts to bring the country into NATO.
But Ukraine’s NATO aspirations are far from being realized and EU membership is certainly years away.